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The Chronicle of Higher Education: Democrats Unveil Bill to Help Realize Obama’s Free-College Proposal

Jul 8, 2015
In The News

A team of Congressional Democrats on Wednesday introduced a bill that would make community college free for two years and help cover the costs of a four-year degree at minority-serving institutions, pushing forward the free-college proposal that President Obama unveiled in January.

But with a $90-billion price tag over 10 years for the federal government, the measure is about $30 billion more expensive than Mr. Obama’s proposal, and so far it does not have the backing of any Republican lawmakers.

Still, its sponsors called it a crucial step toward defraying costs and ensuring college access for low-income, minority, and first-generation students who would otherwise take out large loans to finance their educations.

"We know that education is extremely important. We know that it’s important to our ability to compete on an international basis and a global economy," said Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives’ education committee, at a news conference on Wednesday.

About 60 representatives and 10 senators sponsored the measure, which is known as the America’s College Promise Act of 2015. They said it could benefit as many as nine million students, saving full-time students about $3,800 in tuition each year. It would also make credits transferable between community colleges and four-year institutions or occupational training programs.

Students at minority-serving institutions could use Pell Grants to help cover their remaining living expenses and other costs of attendance, Mr. Scott said.

States would have to agree to certain reforms to participate in the program, he added, and students would have to "maintain satisfactory academic progress." States would pay for about 25 percent of the program’s costs, Mr. Scott said.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a conference call on Wednesday that the bill "will require everyone to step up, have skin in the game, and do their part."

"This legislation represents a huge step forward and builds on the momentum we’re seeing to reduce the cost of college and expand college affordability," he said.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said at the news conference on Wednesday that the bill would be a boon to historically black institutions.

"We must fight to support HBCUs before the rug is pulled from under them," he said.

The bill’s introduction also comes as several Democratic presidential candidates have spoken in support of a debt-free higher education. Martin J. O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, introduced a debt-free-college plan this week. Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont’s proposedmaking four-year public colleges free for all students, at a cost of about $70 billion.

Rep. Linda T. Sánchez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that as one of seven children born to immigrant parents, she knew that education was always a top priority in her family, because her parents recognized it as key to their eventual success. But Ms. Sanchez, Democrat of California, said at the news conference that college "wasn’t always an easy path," as she took on large loans and continued to pay them off years after graduation.

"Many Latino and first-generation students simply are priced out of a four-year education," she said. "I owe my success to education, there’s no doubt about that. Let’s give our students the tools they need."